Tuesday, May 17, 2011

According to Al, "There is no other place like this"

On May 14th I met my class at the Solano Community Garden. Al Renner, the man who runs the place, met us. Unfortunately, the garden is not wheelchair accessible, but we managed to get Gabby in--with help from some strong men and her ramp. The garden really should have a ramp and wheelchair paths, but I was so happy to see Gabby rolling in that I just made a mental note to write an angry letter to the city about the ADA issues. At first, my students didn't look thrilled to be there. In fact, they looked like the pictures up above. I could see their thoughts: "Who is this weird guy, and what has Ms. Jenny gotten us into?" When Al started talking about snakes and bugs, the students blanched. Al told us the he had two favors to ask: "...if you see a bug, don't pick it up. Sometimes they bite." Great...biting bugs. And favor #2 was even better: Al said, "I'm looking for snakes..not rattlers, but gophers and garden snakes. If you see a long snake, give out a big yell--I want to measure it." My husband overheard a student whisper "He doesn't need to worry about that--if I see a snake I'm going to yell for sure!" I imagined all the students were thinking they should have gone to the beach clean up.

Before we headed out to explore the garden, Al told us about it. "There's not another project like this in the U.S.," he said, and then he explained how the garden produces food for local restaurants and how they work with the folks at Homeboy Industries. He also told us about the rainwater system, which made sense to my class because we have studied water issues, especially as they relate to Los Angeles. I really liked Al's explanation of how they used everything in the garden, reusing and recycling and making sure nothing goes to waste. Al told us to go explore before we started working, and everyone just looked at him. Go explore? With the biting bugs and the snakes? Check out the compost? What's compost?
Finally, Jennifer led the way. After we walked around, Al called us together. "Did you try the peaches?" he asked. No one had, yet. "Did you try the strawberries?" Nope. He also told us why they put straw on the beds (to preserve moisture and prevent weeds) and how to grow potatoes in a tire, which I can't wait to try. After that, he divvied up the jobs: picking peaches, picking strawberries, preparing beds for planting, dealing with with the compost, trimming a bush, and cleaning the beans. Everyone wanted to pick peaches or strawberries, but finally we got the groups organized (thanks for volunteering for the less glamorous jobs, especially to the Bougainvillea team!).

I followed Al around helping everyone get started, and as I watched the students working, I saw their displeasure turn to interest. Of course, there was a close call with a slug, and Nina needed gloves to cover her nails, but everyone was doing their job. I sat at the table with Gabby and cleaned fava beans and even though I could hear the 110 freeway rushing by, even though I knew I was in the middle of LA, I was somewhere else, too--somewhere better.
The strawberry kids did a great job after they recovered from the slug, and the students working on the beds amazed me--I want to hire them to prepare my beds--when they finished the beds looked flat and perfect and ready for new plants.
As I said, the tree trimmers really had a job because that plant has wicked thorns, but they seemed to be having fun when I stopped by (and I have lots of Bougainvillea at my house--any volunteers to come trim it? I didn't think so). My husband was overjoyed to get into the compost (he's weird) and Gabby's boyfriend made a great partner.
Picking peaches for hours on end in the hot sun is a terrible job, but picking peaches (and eating peaches) on a cloudy day in LA looked pretty cool to me, and I know Jonnelly looked pretty happy when I saw her.
All in all, the work got done. When Al weighed the peaches they came out to 51 pounds, and he said they would be used for a fund raising dinner. We ate the strawberries, but the fava beans will be served in a restaurant somewhere nearby. The beds the students prepared will have plants in them soon, so when I eat out I will be able to imagine I am eating a radish or tomato or squash that grew because of what we did in class.
The compost turned out fine and perfect, and thanks to the Bougainvillea team, you can open the gate again.
In the end, we gathered around the table and listened to Al again, but now everyone was smiling.
The peaches were beautiful, the strawberries tasted great, and Al's donuts were a nice addition. Al asked the class to sign his book, and when it was my turn I couldn't think of what to write, and I teach writing, so I told the truth: words fail to capture experiences like this, but these are the best experiences to have. No one saw a snake, and no one was bitten by a bug, but I hoped we all learned something about community, organic gardening, local food, farming, and why these ideas are so important to understand, and so much more real when you pick a peach or prepare a bed for planting than when you just read about them in books.
After my students left, we hung around to talk to the President of the garden and Al. They were really impressed with my students. I was, too, but I've known these kids all year and I know they are pretty special. Still, this trip left me with memories that I know I will keep. I want to formally and officially thank Al Renner,commander in chief; the President of the Garden, India; all the students who showed up: Nina, Mayra, Jennifer, Esmeralda, Yessica, Markisse, Norma, Jazmin, Gabby, Jonnelly, Kristine, Sonia, Gennesis, Jenni, Nick, and Vanessa S.; and the friends and family members who showed up, including my wonderful husband, Robert Dunbar. Great job, everyone, and thanks--whenever I feel low I will look at this blog and the great posts and pictures and remember why I have hope. That hope became clear to me today as we finished watching An Inconvenient Truth in class. It's May, and it is unseasonably cold and rainy as I write this. In the face of so many environmental challenges, it is so easy to give up, or to bury our heads in the sand, but as we discussed the film in class, and I looked at the website's advice (buy local, support organic farms, eat less meat, get involved), and I felt the fluttering of that hope. Al told us that every revolution is started by a farmer, and maybe I'm not starting a revolution, and maybe my students won't, either, but I believe that hope is an ember, and if we blow on it, it will turn to a fire. I hope we can avoid the fires we read about in The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler; I hope we still have time for the ember to glow, but I know that my experience at the Solano Community Garden will help keep my fire burning, and I look forward to working with the garden in the future.

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